[WOMEN'S WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT] Aside from committing a last-minute foul that robbed U.S. forward Alex Morgan of a chance to win the game, Japan captured the 2011 Women’s World Cup final with heroism and determination.
Unable for much of the match to ignite its flowing attacking style of cohesive, interconnected possessions spiced with an occasional long ball, Japan chased and battled to stave off a blowout. Not until well into the second half did it gain a grip in midfield, and by then the Americans had hit the woodwork twice and peppered Japan’s goal without reward. But never did its players panic, look flustered, or let their spirits droop.
Paired up top and supplied by sharp, inventive work from midfield, Abby Wambach and Lauren Cheney stormed into the Japanese penalty area but failed to score. Wambach launched a searing shot from outside the box that rattled the crossbar, and Cheney glided free to loop a running header a foot high.
Unable to contain the flank insurgencies of Megan Rapinoe and Heather O’Reilly nor the central probing of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx, Japan seldom crossed the halfway line until halftime. Rapinoe broke free several times, once to play a near-post ball that Cheney re-directed just wide, and again to crash a shot off the outside of the post from a severe angle.
Captain Homare Sawa stayed deep in vain effort to hold the middle secure and rarely did a telling ball get out to left mid Aya Miyama or reach frontrunners Kozue Ando and Shinobu Ohno, both of whom were substituted midway through the second half.
The entrance of Yuki Nagasato and Karina Maruyama came as Japan began to get more of the ball, but ironically, one of its best attacks up to that point came with a high cost. Just a few minutes after that double switch, halftime sub Alex Morgan -- Cheney was forced off with an ankle injury suffered early in the game -- broke open the deadlock with her second goal of the tournament. Morgan had hit the post just minutes into the second half and in the 69th minute she made Japan pay for its inability to contain her.
The American capacity to counter had already yielded goals in this tournament, and when the ball rolled free from a cluster of U.S. players near the edge of their own penalty area, Rapinoe lofted a long ball down the middle that a sprinting Morgan cushioned with her head. She then veered past defender Saki Kumagai and nailed a low, left-footed shot that keeper Ayumi Kaihori dived for but couldn’t reach.
In most other games, against most other teams, the Americans would either have held the lead or increased it, as it had done after getting ahead of North Korea and Colombia in the group stage and France in the semifinals. But instead, Japan matched the USA’s feat against Brazil of coming back not once, but twice.
Brazil had capitalized on sloppy defending to score one of its goals against the USA and a botched clearance did in the Americans again. Rachel Buehler lunged to block a ball served into the six-yard box for Maruyama, and while on the ground tried to boot it clear, but instead pinged it off teammate Ali Krieger a few yards away. Miyama knocked the gift opportunity past goalie Hope Solo to tie it, 1-1, in the 81st minute.
Granted a reprieve, Japan finally found the angles and spaces to stitch together passing sequences, yet poor service with the final pass continued to plague its forward moves. The American attack was still clicking, and Morgan pierced Japan’s back line once again to smack a shot off the post. Roaming to both sides of the field with Wambach pivoting off her runs, Morgan ran rampant.
Near the end of the first overtime, Morgan linked up with Rapinoe to threaten as Japan failed to close down its right corner. It fended off one combination play, but in the 104th minute, Morgan got a foot of space on right back Yukari Kinga and from near the end line drove a clothesline cross that Kumagai couldn’t reach and Wambach leaned into with a powerful header.
With the turnaround between extra periods came yet more drama as Japan refused to buckle. Miyama and Sawa served balls that Solo and her defenders scrambled to clear. Solo needed some attention when she missed a cross and a bad mix-up between Lloyd and Rapinoe nearly provided Japan with a second garbage goal.
Sundhage used a second sub in the 114th minute. By sending on Tobin Heath for Rapinoe, Sundhage removed one of the five players who had successfully converted a penalty kick against Brazil in the quarterfinals. The Americans would soon rue that rate of exchange.
Heath’s entrance added a dose of fresh energy to the left side that mirrored the relentless work of Heather O’Reilly on the opposite flank. So Japan tested the middle; right back Kinga raced onto one such serve only to shank her shot, but on a second attempt, she drew out Solo to clip a ball towards goal that captain Christie Rampone hacked over the end line when she perhaps had enough time to more calmly play it upfield or over the sideline.
Miyama’s drove an inswinger to the near-post edge of the goal area and Sawa’s darting run got her there a step ahead of Buehler to flick a shot with the outside of her right foot. It glanced off Wambach, standing about midway between Sawa and the goal, and Solo’s desperate flap couldn’t nick it. And still it was far from over.
After Japan equalized, Wambach evaded Japan’s center backs to volley an O’Reilly cross well over the bar from close range. Yet another attack yielded a ball to Morgan in the penalty arc amidst a stretched Japan back line; Azusa Iwashimizu’s slide tackle missed the ball and uprooted Morgan. German referee Bibiana Steinhaus showed Iwashimizu a straight red card; with the ball a yard outside the penalty area, Lloyd angled her free kick angled away from the wall; it produced only a Heath follow-up attempt that was blocked.
For the penalty kicks, Japan coach Norio Sasaki gathered all of his players in a circle, and smiled throughout his exhortations. The U.S. sent out Boxx and Lloyd for the first two kicks. Both had converted against Brazil, but Boxx put her shot down the middle and Kaihori kicked it away with her trailing foot as she dove left. Miyama converted for a 1-0 lead, and then Lloyd, who had misfired several times with her shots yet otherwise played a solid game, skied a terrible miss well over the bar. Solo stopped Yuki Nagasato to keep the deficit to one kick; her teammates couldn’t seize the initiative.
On the third U.S. attempt, Heath hit a good low drive but Kaihori had guessed right and parried it at full stretch. Solo also guessed correctly but Mizuho Sakaguchi’s shot caromed under her glove and into the net. On that occasion, as occurred often on this night of close calls and near-things, inches of difference might as well have been yards.
Wambach converted to cut Japan’s lead to 2-1, but Kumagai smashed a high shot over Solo’s dive for unassailable 3-1 advantage. By knocking off host Germany in the quarterfinals with an extra-time goal, Japan forged its resolve; with a greater triumph of will and skill, it wrote the final chapter of an epic journey.